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Scientists discover how to trap cancer cells before they spread

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by Cancer Research UK | News

1 October 2015

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Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute and the University of Copenhagen have discovered a new way to potentially ‘fence in’ a tumour and help stop cancer cells spreading, according to a Cancer Research UK funded study published in EMBO Reports* today, (Thursday).

“This could be an exciting new way to harness the potential of the healthy tissue surrounding cancers to contain and restrain aggressive tumours.” – Dr Erik Sahai

Tumours cause cells called fibroblasts to stiffen the surrounding tissue so that cancer cells can grip it– allowing them to tunnel through to the blood stream and spread around the body.

But the team showed that adding experimental drugs reprogrammed fibroblasts – stopping them from ‘stiffening’ the tissue around tumours. This healthy tissue trapped the cancer cells, blocking their movement away from the tumour.

The team showed in mice that targeting fibroblasts reduced the movement of cancer cells from the tumour to the lungs and liver through the blood stream.

Co-lead author of the study, Dr Erik Sahai from the Francis Crick Institute said: “This could be an exciting new way to harness the potential of the healthy tissue surrounding cancers to contain and restrain aggressive tumours – stopping cancer cells from breaking away and moving to new places in the body.“

Lead author Dr Janine Erler from BRIC at the University of Copenhagen, said: “It’s early days but a very promising new avenue of research. If further studies show this route can benefit patients, it could help crack one of the toughest challenges in cancer research – how to stop tumours spreading.

 “As these fibroblasts are present in all solid tumours, our findings may be relevant to many different cancer types. Therapies similar to the one we tested are currently in clinical trials for anaemia and could feasibly be used to treat cancer patients.”

Nell Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK said: “Most deaths from cancer are caused when cancer cells travel to new sites in the body and grow as secondary tumours. And we know that it’s not just cancer cells that play a part in this process – other cells in and around tumours are involved too.

“But the good news is research like this has the potential to uncover new ways to stop cancer in its tracks. Ultimately we hope these findings could lead to better ways to control the disease – and save more lives.”

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK, FEBS, Novo Nordisk Foundation, Danish Cancer Society, Danish Council for Independent Research, Innovation Fund Denmark and Wellcome-Trust.


For media enquiries contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.

Hypoxia and loss if PHD2 inactivate stromal fibroblasts to decrease tumour stiffness and metastasis: EMBO Reports, Chris Madsen et al.